This is shaping up to be a great PR year for scientists.
First, President Obama has repeatedly given science a starring role in his vision for America’s future. (See video here of his recent speech to the National Academy of Sciences.)
Now it turns out that the American people — the crusty, irascible crowd that so deeply mistrusts Congress, journalists and almost everyone else who could be associated with elite or intellectual status — are uncharacteristically soft on scientists.
In a new poll by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, scientists won approval ratings no realistic politician could even dream of. Eighty-four percent said that science’s effect on society has been mostly positive. Compared with other professions, only members of the military and teachers ranked higher than scientists in terms of contributions to our overall well being.
A large majority of those polled also supported government funding for scientific research. Pew conducted the poll in April and May in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
People took more skeptical views, though, when it came to America’s scientific achievements. Clearly they worry that the nation is slipping behind the rest of the developed world. Just 17 percent thought that U.S. scientific achievements were the best in the world. Scientists, themselves, were more positive on that point. Forty-nine percent of those questioned in a parallel poll said U.S. achievements were the best in the world.
Never mind that American scientists sequenced the human genome, isolated embryonic stem cells and probed distant planets. Only 27 percent of those who make their livings outside laboratories told the pollsters that science and medical technology rank among the United States’ greatest achievements of the past 50 years. Pride in the nation’s scientific achievements apparently fell over a cliff during the past decade: in a similar poll conducted in May 1999, 47 percent ranked scientific and medical advances among America’s greatest achievements.
The scientists suggest an explanation for the dim views of the nation’s scientific prowess. Of those polled, 85 percent said the public knows far too little about science.
The scientists also faulted the news media. Seventy-six percent said news reports do not distinguish between well-founded findings and the insignificant stuff. TV coverage got the worst marks; just 15 percent of the scientists rated it as excellent or good.
Further, half of the scientists blamed the public too, saying that people look for unrealistically quick solutions to problems.
A microbiologist who participated in the survey summed the situation this way: “I feel that science education in this country is in a terrible state, particularly post-elementary education. Something is happening between grade school and junior high school where our kids are losing interest in science or their teachers are not inspiring them. We also need some kind of continuing education, or outreach program, to adults who are out of school. The pace of our scientific advances has become quite swift the last 50 years, but most U.S. adults have been left behind.”
Test your own knowledge here with Pew’s online quiz.
Knowledge aside, the poll revealed sharp differences between the scientists and everyone else on some key issues.
Not surprisingly evolution was one. Eighty-seven of the scientists said that humans and other living things have evolved over time and that evolution is the result of natural processes. Just 32 percent of the public accepted this as true.
On another hot button contemporary issue, 84 percent of the scientists said the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity. Forty-nine percent of the non-scientists agreed.
Favor the use of animals in scientific research? Yes, said 93 percent of the scientists; just 52 percent of the others agreed.
Favor federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells? Yes, said 93 percent of scientists; 58 percent of the others agreed.
Favor building more nuclear power plants? Yes, said 70 percent of the scientists; 51 percent of the others agreed.
Vaccinate all children? Yes, said 82 percent of scientists; 69 percent of others agreed.
One surprising finding is that scientists lean further to the political left than the nation as a whole. In the survey, 55 percent identified themselves as Democrats compared with 35 percent of the public. And fully 52 percent of the scientists called themselves liberals, something only 20 percent of the others would admit to.
Just 20 percent of the others in the survey thought of scientists as politically liberal.
So will that finding sway the public’s view of scientists? Stay tuned for the next survey.